Emmett Jafari, a second-time challenger for the office of Richmond court clerk, likes to refer to himself as a "Richmonder since 1860." He has the documentation to prove it hanging on his office wall.
Jafari scoured Richmond Circuit Court records for his ancestors' marriage certificates dating to the 19th century. But the former local government bureaucrat and tour operator says the experience of parsing outdated computer systems left him frustrated — and continues to inspire his campaign to become the keeper of those records.
It may be an elected position, but it's been filled by an unbroken chain of clerks handing off the job to their deputies for close to a century.
Jafari aims "to draw attention to how long they're in there, and what they're doing," he says. "We need fresh faces, fresh blood and fresh ideas."
Bevill Dean served as clerk for 20 years, having ascended to the job after Iva Purdy held the post for 56 years. Dean's deputy clerk, Edward Jewett, became interim clerk in January when Dean retired. While voters get to pick their clerk every eight years, Jafari says, they aren't getting a choice because of the habit of clerks retiring after the election cycle.
"These documents have no genealogical significance to a person who has no connection to them," Jafari says of court records. "It's not a matter of whether Mr. Jewett or Mr. Dean are good people. They are the continuation of a line of people operating a court where these things aren't significant to them."
Jewett defeated lawyer Melvin Todd for the Democratic nomination in June and says he's done more than Jafari to earn the clerkship. "I don't think in any way that I've inherited it," he says. "It's not a guaranteed thing. You have to go and get evaluated by the voters."
Jewett says he's campaigned on making the kinds of changes Jafari wants to see. He's made strides in making records more accessible and says he has a five-year plan for revamping the system.
Jafari says his experience as an assistant director of Goochland County's Office on Youth and a security manager for Richmond's parks department gives him the necessary managerial experience. He says he also has an understanding of the court's role in documenting its residents' history — he operates a tourism company from his house that highlights the city's black history.
Telling the city's story "is something that the courts need to present," he says, "to show they're not just about criminalizing people."